I was really looking forward to this book by Melanie Benjamin because I thought it sounded like an interesting concept, but it was such a disappointment. It’s not very well written and the narrator doesn’t do a great job on the audiobook. Both the writing and the narrating are OK, just not great.
The concept is fascinating, but even I got sick of the male bashing. Don’t get me wrong, the injustices these women faced (and that women in Hollywood continue to face) make my blood boil, but the narrator insisted on emphasizing the word “men” with such disgust every single time it was written that it really got on my nerves. And when I’m the one telling you there’s too much man-bashing in your book, you know you really have a problem – because I never say that. Ever.
The book centers around the real-life friendship of two women working in Hollywood just as it was becoming Hollywood. Mary Pickford was a young girl living in Toronto when her dad died. Somehow her mom got the idea to put her on stage and that’s how she supported the family until her adulthood, when she made the transition to silent movies.
Frances Marion was a divorcee who wanted to draw set designs for movie studios. She had the good fortune to meet Mary Pickford and they were instant friends – largely because Frances wasn’t an actress and had no desire to be one, so Mary knew she didn’t have to worry about her being the competition.
But Mary did pull Frances into the world of making movies and Frances did everything and anything they would let her until one day they needed someone to write scenes and Frances decided she could do that, so she did, and ended up becoming a very well-known scenarist and even an Oscar-winning screenplay writer when the movies became “talkies.”
Mary, like so many actresses of her day, had a harder time making the transition away from silent movies and eventually faded into obscurity. Although she did make a few talking films (including one with Frances) none of them took off and she eventually faded into obscurity.
Benjamin fabricated a huge fight between the two women on the set of that movie that resulted in their estrangement from each other for many years before Frances forced her way back into Mary’s life against the orders Mary gave her butler not to allow Frances in the house. According to the book, Mary was awful to Frances, but Frances keeps going back for more because … why? Because they “had history”? So what? I have history with lots of people I never talk to anymore.
I really got peeved when I listened to the author’s note at the end of the book. Benjamin admits that she had to take liberties with the facts because there are some things we simply don’t know, including whether the two women fought on the set of that last movie. She said they never made another movie together after that (making it sound like there must have been some sort of rift in the friendship), but she also said that Mary never made another movie after that – with anyone. So it had nothing to do with Frances, who, in fact, continued to trade letters and gifts with Mary for the rest of their lives.
So despite claiming to have written a feminist book, Benjamin actually upheld the stereotype of jealous women who tear at each other’s throats when one is more successful than the other, instead of the truth of incredibly supportive friendships that hold each other up through thick and thin.
Also, the book is extremely white washed. Benjamin mentions “Birth of a Nation,” but only in the context of what a huge technological achievement it was. That’s fine, because it was a very impressive technological achievement for its time, but I don’t think it’s OK to heap praises on that movie without even mentioning its extremely problematic messaging.
That, I was willing to overlook, but then, as the story gets into the Roaring ’20s, Benjamin mentions jazz and the Charleston as if white people invented them, at which point I realized she was never once going to mention any black people at all in her book. Seriously?
So I did learn a fair amount from this book, and it had a few redeeming qualities, but I won’t be reading anything by Benjamin again.
What did you read/listen to this week? Anything else you were really looking forward to that let you down in a big way?